by John Taylor
May 16, 2009
One of the catchphrases of the sixties was 'back to the land.'
Disenchanted with rampant materialism, hippies in droves sought both
a lifestyle and music that reflected ideas and ideals rooted in
simpler times. Few outfits of the era were as influential as The
Band, a bunch of Canadians and an American (that'd be drummer Levon
Helm) who explored the vast tapestry of roots music in a rock context.
Helm, now in his late sixties (he was born in 1940), battled throat
cancer a few years back, a case so severe doctors were sure he'd
never sing again. What he's lost as a singer, though, he's gained as
an oracle. Like Bob Dylan, like Ralph Carter, Helm's voice is nothing
less than the craggy sound of centuries of song, as honest and true
as … well, dirt. There's nothing elegant about it, unless it's the
unadorned elegance of human dignity and utterly unshakable integrity.
Helm's 2006 release, Dirt Farmer, found him exploring primarily
acoustic music that seemed rooted in the very soil of America, a
sympathetic paean to the people closest to the land itself. Electric
Dirt takes up where Dirt Farmer left off, though the music is just as
resolutely rootsy. Material is a bit more eclectic this time out,
with covers including takes on the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed"
and Randy Newman's typically acerbic "King Fish," with its
distinctive New Orleans swagger.
Also included are a pair of Muddy Waters tunes ("Stuff You Got To
Watch" and "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had"). The former is
a loping shuffle, powered by accordion and featuring sing-along
choruses, while the latter employs mandolin as lead instrument;
they're both atypical treatments that work exceptionally well. (Helm
played on The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, an unusual one-off from
1975 that found Waters backed by, among others, The Band's Garth
Hudson on accordion).
Despite or perhaps because of his triumph over illness, mortality
is much on Helm's mind. "Move Along Train" finds him waiting to be
'carried home,' while elsewhere there's the uplifting faith of "When
I Go Away" and the darkly fatalistic "Heaven's Pearls." The disc ends
with a rousing "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," a
civil-rights anthem delivered here with joyous abandon.
Helm and returning producer Larry Campbell, who also contributes a
dizzying array of stringed instruments, wrote "Growing Trade," an
anthemic ode to the plight of today's farmers, and old friend and
fellow Woodstock resident Happy Traum contributed "Golden Bird." The
former sounds like a lost classic from The Band, while the latter,
with it's stripped down fiddle-fuelled arrangement, sounds as though
it's been handed down for centuries.
Helm won a Grammy for Dirt Farmer, and this outing, featuring the
same supporting team, is a logical and delightful continuation of his
ongoing interest in American music. There might be a few more
electric instruments this time out, but the overall feel remains
thoroughly organic, a celebration of the simple and enduring power of song.